Cantarano: case study about female sexual inversion (1883), available on Leswiki

I’d like to publicise here a fantastic web resource that I discovered a few months ago:
This is a wiki with all kinds of information about lesbian culture in Italy and beyond.

It is particularly helpful for me since some incredibly generous people have taken the time to transcribe historical articles and documents about lesbian identity and desire between women in Italy, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This is a really valuable resource that saves readers having to laboriously trek round libraries all over Italy looking at dusty manuscripts (as I have done!).

I’ve been analysing some of the texts that are available on Leswiki for my book, and would like to share some of my thoughts about them on this blog.

The texts I am most interested in at the moment are in the ‘Science’ section.

The earliest text is a case study by the doctor Guglielmo Cantarano, which was the first published case study of female sexual inversion in Italy. Female sexual inversion, as Chiara Beccalossi explains in her book on the subject (Palgrave, 2012) was a term used by doctors in this period to refer to women who felt sexually attracted to other women.


Female sexual inversion was considered by medical experts to be a sign of degeneration, and sometimes of madness.

Cantarano’s case study, «Contribuzione alla casuistica dell’inversione dell’istinto sessuale», was published in the journal La psichiatria, la neuropatologia e le scienze affini, 1883, vol. 1, fascicolo 3, pp. 201-216. The transcribed text can be read here:

There are many striking, disturbing and fascinating aspects to this case study, which focuses on X (the real name is not given), a 20-year old woman. First of all, it is worth pointing out that we have to take Cantarano’s word for what we are reading. He assumes a position as a medical expert who is presenting empirical evidence, but a great deal of this is anecdotal hearsay, told to him by Rosina. She works as a prostitute, and, it appears, has had a sexual relationship with X. Cantarano tells us the story of X’s life: X has been interned in several homes for ‘dangerous girls’–institutions for young women who were considered to be a danger to themselves and to society in general– because her behaviour was considered unacceptable. She often stayed out all night, liked to dress in men’s clothes, for which she has been arrested (at the time it was considered unacceptable for women to dress in ‘male’ clothes), is not attracted to men but to women, and seems impossible to control. Therefore–and Cantarano presents this as a reasonable solution, since X’s poor father was apparently worn ragged by his daughter’s behaviour–she was interned in a mental institution by her own father, while still a teenager. X is still incarcerated in this institution when Cantarano examines her. He admits that she is denied her freedom for no other reason that that she desires women. Her ‘sexual inversion’ is considered so serious that she needs to be locked up in order to protect herself and other women.

This account of X’s life provides many details but leaves lots of questions unanswered. Cantarano tells us that X was unhappy about being born a woman, felt sexual desire for other women, not for men, cut her hair short and wore ‘men’s’ clothes. He takes these facts as proof of a pathological degeneration in her. From a contemporary perspective, we might wonder whether X identified as male, whether she might be a female to male transsexual; or whether s/he simply didn’t want to conform to the rigid model of femininity that prevailed at the time. We will never know the answer to this question, since we don’t have X’s words. We also don’t know whether we can trust Rosina’s account, since she may have been telling Cantarano, a medical doctor in a position of authority, what he wanted to hear, in order to improve her own precarious position. What does seem clear from this case study, despite Cantarano’s condemnations of X, is that X was charismatic, bright and plucky, had a lot of success with women (Cantarano describes X as a Don Giovanni), and was determined to embody the identity that s/he wanted, regardless of social conventions of the time. The case study tells us that female same-sex desire and relationships were relatively widespread at the time, and that individuals were prepared to breach laws and socio-cultural conventions in order to develop relationships, and achieve sexual satisfaction. what is really intriguing about this article for me is that Cantarano condemns X as pathological and perverted, but it seems that he can’t entirely repress his admiration for her courage, charisma and ability to bounce back. He calls her the ‘heroine’ of the story, which speaks volumes. We might think about X as a lost queer icon, a brave figure struggling against the odds. What I’d love to to know is, what happened to X? There is still an enormous amount of research to do to trace these vital lost histories.

About Charlotte Ross

I'm a lecturer and researcher at the University of Birmingham, UK. My main interests are contemporary Italian culture, and gender and sexuality. My current project explores the representation of lesbian identities and desire between women in Italian novels and media, from 1870 to the present day.
This entry was posted in 19th century, Posts in English, Same-sex desire and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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